A day after Defense Secretary Leon Panetta announced strict flight restrictions for America’s most expensive fighter jet, the F-22 Raptor, over safety concerns about the plane’s oxygen system, Sen. John McCain (R.-Ariz.) raised questions about how the move would affect America’s national security and operations abroad.
McCain, the ranking member of the Senate’s Armed Services Committee and vocal critic of the $79 billion F-22 program, noted that a number of the planes had recently been deployed to Southwest Asia — reportedly to a United Arab Emirates base just 200 miles from Iran‘s mainland – ”to promote regional security.”
“Please describe what effect, if any, these measures will have on the ability of the F-22s deployed overseas to execute their intended missions,” McCain wrote in a letter to Panetta Wednesday.
The restrictions, which keep the planes in close proximity to potential landing strips in case of a mid-air emergency, were announced two weeks after an ABC News “Nightline” investigation found that the advanced $420 million-a-pop fighter jets have been plagued by a rare but potentially deadly oxygen problem for years. Despite multiple investigations, the Air Force has been unable to pinpoint the cause.
In another case, a malfunction that the Air Force has yet to identify caused one pilot’s oxygen system to shut off during a training mission in Alaska in November 2010 just a minute before he died in a fiery crash.
A senior defense official said the Pentagon will “certainly” respond to the letter and, without going into specifics, told ABC News the planes would “remain operational in areas where geographic proximity to landing strips permits it.”
“The full range of our capabilities will not result in any operational impact to Afghanistan or elsewhere,” the official said.
Despite being deployed abroad, no F-22 has ever taken part in a combat mission since the $79 billion fleet went combat-ready in late 2005. From Afghanistan and Iraq to the U.S.-led “no-fly zone” over Libya, the Air Force said the sophisticated jets simply haven’t been needed yet.
McCain’s question of combat-readiness also came a day before the American ambassador to Israel said the U.S. has done its military planning and is “ready” to strike Iran if diplomatic talks over the country’s controversial nuclear program fail.
In addition to the senior defense official’s comments, a spokesperson for the Air Force referred ABC News to comments made by Pentagon spokesperson Capt. John Kirby during a Pentagon briefing Tuesday.
“The majority of F-22 pilots are out there flying it every day,” he said, noting the planes’ deployment to Southwest Asia. “There have been no problems. It is flying.”